The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Monday in Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association. The case could upend decades of existing precedent that governs labor relations between cities like St. Paul and our public-service employees.
But more specifically for cities, this case would interfere with our ability to resolve our own workplace decisions and agreements. And it would put at risk the working relationships we have with our public-service workers and their unions that ensure labor peace, set standards for workplace conditions and, most important, provide effective and efficient services to residents and taxpayers.
In St. Paul and other cities, labor relations have been rooted for nearly 40 years in precedent established in 1977 by the Supreme Court in a case called Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education. In Abood, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that it is constitutional for public-sector unions to collect “fair share” fees from employees who choose not to join a union, as is their right, but whom the union is legally required to represent in negotiations with the city. The Friedrichs case threatens to needlessly overturn this precedent at great cost to our city, our services and our citizens.
Our labor-relations system under the Abood precedent has ensured a well-resourced partner in our cities’ unions, allowing our cities to draw knowledge and expertise to improve our delivery of public services.
This system has allowed us to create joint employee and employer task forces through which unions have offered innovations that improve service delivery. These agreements depend upon the existence of stable unions that have the time and staffing to identify efficiencies, as well as on functioning grievance-arbitration systems — the very capacities that agency fees stipulated in Abood make possible.
Together with our unions, we beat back a bad budget that would have slashed tens of millions of dollars in state aid to cities. By joining forces, we spared our cities from devastating service cuts and crippling property tax hikes. We partnered with public workers to create stronger communities by investing wisely in parks, libraries, street repairs, fair housing and first responders.
Labor-management structures also have allowed unions representing front-line employees to provide safety training and guidance on staffing levels to advance professional development and promote better learning environments for our children.
This kind of innovation and cooperation continues today in St. Paul and other cities. If Abood is overturned by the Supreme Court in Friedrichs, there will not only be a long-term adverse impact on these important relationships with our unions, but the effects will be felt immediately.
Overruling Abood would immediately threaten significant municipal interests not only in our cities, but throughout our state, requiring the renegotiation of existing labor agreements. This would disrupt our labor relations and divert the attention of municipal officials from pursuing the efficient and effective delivery of public services to restructuring previously settled bargaining relationships with employees. The result could be a burdensome disruption to services that our communities need and deserve.
In St. Paul, we have worked hard for years to streamline efficient labor relations with our bargaining representatives. Upending that practice would impose a more chaotic and less efficient dynamic between our cities as employers and those employees who work for us.
At a time when budgets are tight and the demand for services remains high, local governments and states need to maintain the authority to organize our own internal operations to meet the needs of our citizens. The interests behind this case want to diminish the standards we have set for working families here in St. Paul. We want to preserve our system. St. Paul and other cities should be able to work together with our unions to structure labor relations that provide services the way we see fit.
Christopher B. Coleman is mayor of St. Paul.